NEW YORK –- Carmelo Anthony went toe-to-toe with James Harden. He took on Linsanity. He scored like a reigning scoring champ should, rebounded like Tyson Chandler and even found time to stick up for Andrea Bargnani and flick a basketball at Dwight Howard.
This was the Carmelo Anthony the New York Knicks need and have been waiting for this season. Anthony delivered his best game of the season with 45 points and 10 rebounds.
He even almost made a Larry Johnson-like four-point play at the end that might’ve won the game, but officials made the right call and saw Harden hack down on Anthony before the forward got off an incredible 3-pointer that dropped in just after Harden hacked him a second time.
Even though Anthony’s miraculous shot didn’t count and the Knicks ended up losing 109-106 to the Houston Rockets, Mike Woodson got a superstar performance from Melo. And the hope is that he continues to play at that level.
If the Knicks are going to win, especially with Chandler out for a month or more, Anthony has to carry the Knicks and then some. Until Thursday night, Anthony had been good but not great, like he was for much of last season.
Against the Rockets, Anthony lifted his game to a level that only a handful of the elite guys in the league can do. In fact, Anthony became just the eighth Knick to have a 45-point, 10-rebound game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. This was a Patrick Ewing-type performance, since the big fella leads the franchise with five 45-and-10 efforts.
Besides getting the win, the only other thing Anthony would like to have gotten was more superstar treatment from the officials. Afterward, Anthony was stinging from the loss and the fact that Harden (36 points and nine rebounds) went to the free throw line 18 times compared to Anthony’s 11 trips.
"We didn’t put him on the line," said Anthony, who made 17 of 30 shots. "[The officials] put him on the line. Harden is a tough guy to guard, especially when they’re calling the game the way that they called it tonight.
"You look at that and you see the way that some guys get their calls. Me, I got to get cut. You’ve got to see blood for me to get a call down there," Anthony later said. "So that’s where the frustration comes from."
Anthony had every right to be frustrated. He gave everything he had, short of his blood. There were times when he scored and got fouled but didn’t get the whistle, and when he did draw a foul, he had to truly earn it.
Anthony played like a man who wasn’t going to be denied. Perhaps he was inspired by playing the Rockets, a team surrounded by plenty of preseason hype since Howard decided to join forces with Harden. And maybe there was a hint of motivation from Jeremy Lin’s return to the Garden, although the Knicks should be over and past that.
What’s more likely, though, was the fact that Anthony could’ve just been sick of seeing the Knicks deliver another dreadful effort at home, where they have now lost four straight. This was the Knicks’ first game back at the Garden after receiving a 31-point beatdown from the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday.
Early this season, Anthony has tried to sacrifice and get others involved early. On Thursday, Anthony was aggressive from the start, scoring 12 points in the first quarter. When the Knicks fell behind by 14 late in the second quarter, Anthony helped bring them back by drilling back-to-back 3-pointers late to cut the deficit to 53-52 at halftime.
Bargnani continued to impress, scoring nine of his 24 points in the third quarter to go with solid defense on Howard inside. Bargnani might not be able to deliver this every night, especially the defense, but he certainly looked like the Robin that the Knicks’ Batman can use. Anthony's aggressive scoring certainly opened up things for Bargnani and other teammates.
"I thought he did a hell of a job," Anthony said.
The Knicks fell behind by seven a couple of times in the fourth due to defensive lapses, but each time, Anthony kept attacking. When Anthony was doubled, he found open shooters. Down four with less than two minutes left, Anthony grabbed an offensive rebound, missed a shot under the basket but grabbed another offensive rebound before drawing a hard foul. He was relentless. Anthony’s two free throws cut the Rockets’ lead to 104-102 with 1:39 left. It was the type of workmanlike effort the Garden crowd appreciates.
He did commit a foul he wants back that gave Harden a free throw, and he took and missed a quick, contested 3-pointer with plenty of time left on the shot clock with 30.9 seconds left.
But he blocked a Harden shot on the other end and the Knicks got the ball back with 5.2 seconds left.
The Knicks inbounded to Anthony, and Harden raked down on Anthony’s arm twice. The officials said they saw the first foul attempt, and there was no continuation allowed on the shot that went in.
Anthony made both free throws, but Harden did the same on the other end, and J.R. Smith ended up missing a half-court heave at the buzzer.
The Knicks were smarting afterward, but there’s reason to be optimistic. The Knicks look significantly better than the last time they were on the Garden floor.
They fought, and a lot of that is because Anthony looked a lot like the Carmelo of last season -- the one who put the Knicks on his shoulders and carried them to 54 wins and a playoff series victory.
"Looks like he got his pop back," Raymond Felton said. "His jump shot, his movement to the basket. He looks good. He is starting to get into that groove."